The year was 2010, and I was on a mission trip that went to Kansas City during Spring Break. Our small group of college students was serving in the Kansas City Rescue Mission, assisting with preparing food and serving those who came to the soup kitchen, as well as basic building and cleanup projects. My brain tends to remember general ideas, and so I don’t recall details from the majority of the trip. However, there is one moment that stands out clearly, and I will never forget it.
I was in the kitchen with a couple of other students, working to prepare a meal. I think I was wearing a red or yellow t-shirt with a thin blue pullover hoodie. I don’t recall specifically what we were doing, but at some point, one of my peers said something that was quite negative. Either a complaint, a sarcastic comment, or something similar. In reply, I remarked how that situation could have a positive aspect to it. I don’t recall my words, but it wasn’t said in a “happy go lucky” or naïve way, just a reminder that sometimes we can find the good in even difficult situations.
At this point, another one of the students, a young woman, spoke up. I believe she was wearing a blue t-shirt, and working at the other side of the kitchen, across the island in the center. She said, “Michael, that’s something I love about you. You always find a way to see the positive side of things.” She isn’t someone that I had talked to all that often. I didn’t know her before the trip. While I was shy and a quiet introvert, she was an outgoing and bubbly personality, so I was floored that she had even taken notice. (Thankfully, I was stunned into speechlessness, because otherwise I would have said something stupid and really put my foot in my mouth. Fellow introverts, I know you understand!)
This brief comment, which came from someone I didn’t know well and didn’t think had really noticed me, made a permanent impact on me. I’ll never forget what she said, because it touched an important aspect of what I had experienced, and who I was aspiring to be.
The Obligatory Back Story
2010 was a watershed year for me. In the spring of 2008, I had a rather simple surgical operation that resulted in an infection, which took me away from my freshman year of college for a number of weeks. Up until that point, the college experience had been difficult, but rewarding.
As someone who had entered college as a homeschooler (excepting my senior year in a private school), it was quite the culture shock. Still, the camaraderie provided by participation in the cross country team had kept me in a pretty good place through the fall and winter. But the operation, infection, and resulting isolation broke some kind of emotional dam, and I fell into a deep depression.
Over the next two years, I struggled severely. I survived only through the love and support of family, friends, mentors, and professionals. It seemed like the mental suffering would never end, but 2010 was the year I finally had a breakthrough. In February of that year, I attended a coffeehouse concert at one of the local campus houses, and I found, to my surprise, that I felt joy. The healing had started much earlier, but that spring was the moment I could actually detect a major change in my emotions.
By April 2010, when we took our Spring Serve trip over spring break, I wasn’t yet fully recovered, but could function fairly normally. Importantly, I also had a touch of the mindset that only comes from enduring and conquering suffering.
One of the things that had been absolutely essential in my healing process was learning how to shift my perspective, and look at even hard, painful, and difficult things through a lens that enabled me to see the good in them. It wasn’t a positivity of naïveté (insisting everything in the world was good and fun and easy). It was a positivity of endurance: recognizing that life can be heartbreaking, but that there can be joy and beauty even in the midst of hardship.
When I said something to my fellow student that put a positive spin on a negative situation, it wasn’t intended to be a denial of the hardships of life. Rather, it was a comment borne of an outlook that was tempered by suffering; an outlook that recognized the value of noticing the valuable within pain.
It was here that this young woman spoke what appeared to be an offhand comment, to the casual observer. Yet, in the process she spoke to the core of who I had been working to become. She noticed how I had been striving to use encouragement to influence not only myself, but also those around me.
Even after 12 years, I haven’t forgotten that compliment. I probably barely spoke to her after the trip was over, and yet, through that small word of affirmation, she has impacted my life in ways she wouldn’t have dreamed.
It Was Unexpected
There are multiple reasons why this young woman’s comment has remained in my memory. As I’ve already mentioned, one factor is that it aligned with my personal growth. Another significant factor is that it came from a girl I respected and admired (ladies, as much as we like to act aloof and self-confident, there’s little that affects a man as much as a genuine compliment from a woman).
Another major factor was how unforeseen it was. I didn’t know this young woman well, though I did respect her (and had a slight crush on her). There are times when you expect to receive compliments from people: often when you’re making a big life change (such as a job change, retirement, graduation, birthday). Although those words of encouragement are nice, it can be difficult to take them too seriously. After all, it’s expected that people will pile on praise at those times, right?
There’s nothing wrong with sharing words of positivity when someone reaches a life milestone, and it’s an important part of our social lives… but if we limit our encouragement to those times, we’re seriously missing out.
Potentially the most impactful words we speak or write are words of sudden inspiration. They can make a lifelong impact, partly because of the fact that they’re so unusual and rare.
It Was Genuine
I’m not sure about you, but I LOATHE flattery. If I believe that someone is attempting to flatter me (or someone else), I’m immediately repelled and on guard. If I sense that a compliment may not be fully genuine or may have ulterior motives, the compliment often has the reverse effect of what was stated.
I’ve gotten fairly good at detecting flattery, and I really hate it. It’s hard to take something at face value when you sense there may be something else lurking behind the words. That being said, when a compliment or word of encouragement is truly genuine, it has that much more of an impact. People tend to be fairly good at detecting flattery, and though some enjoy it, others don’t.
In contrast, there’s something special about a compliment that is truly authentic. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t love a heartfelt compliment (even if some react in a self-effacing way). We all know that negative words can be devastating, striking straight to the heart of a recipient… but positive words are incredibly powerful, too!
Good Stuff All Around
You may have read this far and thought, “Great! Just like everyone else, I enjoy an unexpected, genuine compliment. But that doesn’t happen to me.” You know what? I feel you. It’s not something that people make a habit of doing. We’re so busy, stressed, anxious, and wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t give much thought to encouraging someone else.
But there’s a secret: even if you don’t have people speaking encouragement into your life, you can give it to someone else. And you might be surprised to learn that when you GIVE out unexpected, genuine compliments, you ALSO feel REALLY GOOD. I’ve started to make a semi-regular habit of sending random encouragement to other people. It’s incredible how much the practice inspires and lifts me up, plus who knows how it might impact them?
Maybe you feel you need to be encouraged and don’t have the strength to give encouragement… But I’m a believer in the philosophy that when you give to others, you also receive. It may simply be receiving the good feelings you get from encouraging others (and don’t underestimate this power to lift your spirits), but I’m willing to bet that when you give out encouraging words, they will come back to you, in one way or another.
It’s Your Turn!
You know how it works: my posts aren’t just about sharing my experiences, but about inspiring you to do something in your own life! I’ve got a challenge for you: this week, think of at least one person that has had a positive impact in your life, or may just need some uplifting, and send them a word of encouragement.
Encouragement is awesome. It can actually change the course of another person’s day, week, or life.Chuck Swindoll
Maybe it’s a text message, an email, a handwritten letter, or a phone call. However you do it, make sure it’s a genuine compliment or word of comfort. All the better if it’s directed at something or someone unexpected! Thank them for how they’ve been part of your life. Tell them something that you really appreciate about them.
Need some inspiration? Here’s a short (but not exhaustive) list that might spark some ideas:
- Parents, siblings, and other family members
- Teachers, coaches, and others who believed in you
- Mentors, role models, pastors/spiritual leaders
- Friends (don’t forget about old acquaintances!)
- Coworkers & bosses
- First responders and other public servants, people working in the service industries
- People who are more prone to being lonely (older adults, empty-nesters, widows/widowers, ill or otherwise isolated, imprisoned, single adults, etc.)
The young woman who said a single sentence to me over a decade ago wasn’t aware of my history and inner private life. In spite of that, her words were incredibly powerful. You may not know what someone is going through, but when you are willing to be THAT PERSON, you may be surprised at how God will use you in their life.
Consider what it would mean to you if someone unexpectedly thanked or encouraged you without any apparent reason… and resolve to be that person for someone else.
Header Image Credit: Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
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